This October marks the 104th anniversary of the debut of a pop culture titan. Born of woman, raised by apes, Tarzan swung into American consciousness via the pen of underemployed Oak Park salesman Edgar Rice Burroughs, a fan of the era’s pulp magazines. Later, from atop fame and fortune, he recalled thinking that “if people were paid for writing rot such as I read in some of those magazines, that I could write stories just as rotten.”
He was not kidding. Burroughs renders the modern-day reader helpless with his prose. But in the early 1900s he struck literary gold from just about the day his ape man found the light of publication. The novel Tarzan of the Apes launched a character that became a perennial in just about any entertainment media consumed by thrill-hungry Americans. Elmo Lincoln played Tarzan on screen in 1918 in the first of over 200 (!) Tarzan films. As time went on the ape-man conquered radio, television, cartoons, video games, the View-Master, and comics. Burroughs, meanwhile, made enough money to buy a California ranch in 1915. He christened it Tarzana and the Los Angeles neighborhood where it stood still bears that name.
Burroughs proved to be a pioneer in pop culture monetization. Almost from the go he oversaw Tarzan’s jump into other media and also made a fortune merchandising his creation. As for the books, Burroughs cranked out Tarzan adventures by the hatful while also—this is honestly incredible—writing two other classic, bestselling series: several books set in Pellucidar, “the world at the earth’s core,” and the tales of John Carter, Warlord of Mars. Not surprisingly, the savvy Burroughs mastered the art of the crossover, publishing Tarzan at the Earth’s Core in 1930. (Tarzan rides an airship into the hollow earth, if you’re wondering.) Late in life Burroughs parlayed his status as a national treasure into work as a World War Two war correspondent despite being almost 70 years old.
Fellow Oak Park alum Ernest Hemingway settled for making beer ads and winning the Nobel Prize. Burroughs, in the words of Ray Bradbury, topped him. “Edgar Rice Burroughs was, and is, the most influential writer, bar none, of our century,” Bradbury said.